How World Class Innovators Create the Unexpected
Grace Sai created a fusion of:
- co-working space, mentorship network, venture fund, events facility, & cafe
- multiple stakeholders in an ecosystem
It's a small village, with a dusty road and trees—much like any other in rural Indonesia. She glided towards the white porch with the open gable and drifted inside.
She saw the children's painting filling one of the white walls—brown & green tree, red bird, multi-coloured flowers, and a rainbow. To the right is the green bookshelf, half-filled with books, each sporting a yellow sticker atop its spine, all neatly stacked.
She floated through the ceiling and saw the building from above, its design clear and simple.
"When I woke up, I drew it out and called my dad and said, 'Hey dad, I'm going to start this thing. You don't have to worry, because it'll also be sustainable."
He said, "No! Don't be crazy."
She didn't talk to him for 6 months.
Unfortunately, she got a similar response when she told her boyfriend.
So, she started it alone.
Twenty-four-year-old Grace Sai had been working with her sister in Jakarta, Indonesia, setting up a telecommunications company, when she had the "flash enlightenment" in a dream. Her day job was productive but unfulfilling, yet at night, she could dream.
Founding a not-for-profit organization while being discouraged by the people closest to her (albeit with good intentions) was very scary and lonely. Nonetheless, she modeled the enterprise on John Wood's Room to Read organization and adapted it for Indonesia.
Within three weeks, she put together a team of volunteers and 3,000 donated-books. She kept her day job, but on weekends carted books into Indonesia's jungles and slums. Within a year, she set up 12 libraries across the nation. Beyond literacy, she was also excited to run entrepreneurship workshops to help villagers narrow the rural-urban income gap.
For two years, Books for Hope built libraries for children in remote villages by working with big corporations—training Googlers and PWC auditors and more to become children-centric volunteer teachers. Almost every weekend, she was in a jungle village.
When she left to do her MBA at Oxford on a Skoll scholarship for social entrepreneurs, the local team continued for another 4 years. Twelve libraries grew to 26, and they've given 30,000 children across the country access to books and literacy.
While in Oxford, she focused on two things: social entrepreneurship and how to create new markets and innovation systems. She noted that innovation often comes at the periphery of boundaries, but it needs support—the kind of support she wished she'd had.
She accepted a consulting project in Palo Alto, CA (USA) (part of her MBA program). A colleague decided she needed a push to go to a new place in San Francisco people were joining, which she said, "is SO you." Grace had plans and declined but got pushed and driven in her friend's car anyway.
"So, I stepped into the San Francisco Chronicle building—this big, grand, former newspaper-printing space—and I felt it—it clicked. I thought, 'Oh my God—this is where I want to be'—an inner knowing, that this is something I have to do—a calling."
She describes the place as having an electrifying energy that could make anyone believe anything is possible. All the Hubs have a social entrepreneurship flavor (although any entrepreneur can join) and provide community and a place of courage. She knew she would have loved such a place when starting Books for Hope and hoped there was an untapped market of people with the same desire—enough to make it a business.
She spoke with the founders about the business model and whether they're in Asia. They weren't and suggested she start one.
Based on her studies at Oxford, Grace knew that behind The Hub there's a good deal of science—research into social network theory, innovation ecosystem development, and more. She realized The Hub is the manifestation of a node at the intersection of different networks, including creative media, technology, etc. It's a neutral platform that integrates government, startups, and corporations such as JP Morgan, Google, and P&G.
She knew Asia's first Hub should be in Singapore. If it did well, the region would follow. Nonetheless, her decision to return to Asia was not easy. She's at home in Silicon Valley and London and could have taken a job building her own life. But she would miss "making an impact" in a place where she could make a big difference.
"I'm not happy here, but I have purpose here. And from purpose comes happiness."
She started a small social-enterprise community, and after becoming visibly successful in the first year, she hosted the first Asia Summit in 2012. In between the two, she worked for 6 months to save money to work 9 more months launching Impact Hub Singapore. As part of a franchise, this hub is a node in a global community, and the founders freely shared their 7 years of experience with her, shortening her learning curve.
During those 9 months, she had over 400 conversations to test if the highly-successful country filled with corporate jobs really wanted a Hub. Would people really use it? Nothing like it existed already.
"Before you start, you need to kill your idea. A lot of first-time founders make the mistake of talking to people to validate their ideas. That's dangerous. You need to try to kill it before you spend a lot of resources starting it."
She couldn't kill it, and the timing was perfect. She started with a team of 3, and in their first 1,000 conversations, they were constantly explaining what is co-working, what's the business model, and why would you need a community or collaboration. People asked, "Are you a business, a community, or a network?" She said, "Yes."
The Hub is best described as three things: an inspiring co-working space, weekly events (keynote speakers, incubator pitches, mindfulness classes, etc.), and a curated community of like-minded but diverse individuals seeking higher success rates through high collision of ideas, conversations, & connections ("planned serendipity"). It also includes a venture fund and mentorship.
The team grew from 3 to 14 (with 2 co-founders besides Grace). They started with 30 members and now have 650, including billion-dollar "unicorns." It is Singapore's largest co-working community and expanded to a second location. The global Hub has grown, as well, now hosting 80 nodes (26 in-development), with over 15,000 members across 5 regions.
Singapore and the region have also changed and grown, and Grace speaks widely on innovation and ecosystem development. She was invited by the Prime Minister's Offices in Singapore and Malaysia to share her inputs and is now a Social Entrepreneur-in-Residence at INSEAD.
Born in Malaysia, she was the fifth of six children. Both parents were educators, and there were 20 to 30 kids at the house every night. Life got a little crazy when they used the mattresses as slides or turned on the taps to make the bathroom a pool to jump into from the window. Each kid might take charge of a room, set up an activity, and see who could earn more, selling tickets.
They also had strong discipline and work ethic. Grace's mother insisted all the kids learn piano, so Grace studied from age 4 to 17. In contrast to two siblings who were musically gifted and adept at improvisation, Grace had to read, memorize, and practice, but was excellent at music theory—understanding concepts, patterns, form, and abstraction.
Grace speaks 6 Languages (Cantonese, Chinese, English, German, Indonesian, and Malay) and was the first of her siblings to study in Singapore on scholarship. She read extensively, was president of three clubs while studying for O-levels, and annoyed her classmates by asking so many questions. As a triple science student (physics, chemistry, and biology), she approaches ideas scientifically. She graduated from Nanyang Business School with student loans, having also worked as a tutor, selling education programs at roadshows, and writing case studies for international marketing guru Philip Kotler.
Friends say she's able to make associations across disciplines and fields when others can't see them. She similarly connects people—those with the same underlying purpose who are different on the outside, as when she connected wealthy professionals with villagers in Books for Hope. Likewise, at The Hub—a multi-stakeholder eco system—she connects members, investors, mentors, the broader ecosystem, and the team. She sees at depth, connects what's the same even when it's different on the surface, and communicates in a way that transcends.
She is described as passionate, driven, aware, smart, dynamic, extremely inspirational, curious, continuously learning, authentic, objective, collaborative, and flexible, with contagious energy. A good negotiator and harder on the outside than in, she notices team morale and feelings yet also says exactly what she thinks and openly shares her emotions. Although short on time, patience, and attention, she builds good relationships, and once something has happened, lets it go.
She collects non-fiction autobiographies & biographies (viewing fiction as a waste of time), and ideas come from broad, voracious reading, as well as from people-connecting. She listens to customers and potential customers and watches competitors. She clarifies by visualizing, drawing, and writing things down.
That said, a lot of her best ideas and solutions come to her when she's away from The Hub—especially in the zone between thinking and not thinking, in the shower, or when going to sleep. That's when things are most clear.
She understands she can't purposely think of a problem. It has to incubate and will pop up when it's ready. She's also learned to tell her team a first-decision is a "place holder for now" while her mind incubates. They get frustrated when un-incubated decisions are reversed.
In fact, Grace says team management is the hardest part of her job. She cares for them on a personal level—love is given. Trust, on the other hand, is earned. She's quite demanding until she knows they're thinking at a certain level of quality (although not necessarily in agreement with her). Then they have her full trust.
Listening to Understand vs. Listening to Respond — Grace listens deeply to her mentors, and a conversation may give her insights to work on for a whole year. That said, as a former National Debater, her Hub team has accused her of listening to respond, not to understand. As a determined person, it is also tempting to listen for what she wants to hear, although scientific training pushes her to listen objectively.
Sometimes She's "Speed Listening"—Like other busy leaders, sometimes while listening, she's recognized a pattern or made a decision. She really did listen, but the speaker isn't finished, and it may look like she didn't listen. In order to change her mind by the end of the conversation, she needs the speaker to think at the same speed and challenge her underlying assumptions.
Sometimes Listen to Everyone—Building a multi-stakeholder ecosystem and leading a team requires that Grace be aware and listen to multiple inputs and perspectives. Listening is good.
Sometimes Don't Listen—If she had listened to her dad and boyfriend, she would not have had fulfilling work with Books for Hope, and 30,000 kids would not have had libraries. So, sometimes judgment is necessary and not-listening is good.
Listen when Someone is Really Passionate — Grace had plans and had no need to go to The Hub in San Francisco, but listening to her insistent friend launched a new future. So, listening to the right people at the right time is good—if you can figure that out.
Listening (& Empathy) Can Burn You Out—All social entrepreneurs have active empathy. They help people. However, it can lead to burnout, and Grace, like many empaths, has learned to control the urge, now jumping in only when asked. She also has emotional empathy, as well as cognitive empathy (seeing from other's perspectives). However, she's learned not to use them all the time. They're too exhausting.
"Empathy is a very tiring process, so I just switch it on when it matters. After two burnouts, it took me a lot of years to learn how to manage that power and energy. I was available without boundaries, and that's not good. We need some boundaries."
Ironically, as a professional boundary-crosser, she had to learn to set and manage boundaries while helping others cross boundaries & come together as a community.
However, she doesn't particularly observe boundaries between work and personal life. It's all integrated, and she does gain significant energy, purpose, and happiness from her work (despite the stress and strain of building a new enterprise). She meditates daily, does triathlon sports, and walks in the park when she needs to clear her head.
Grace has hardened and softened during her journey. On the hard side, she's built resilience and calmness, now viewing things more like a game to be played or a puzzle to be solved. On the soft side, her sharing and openness has increased, as well as patience and asking for help. Her advice for new entrepreneurs is to join a community with mentors and peers. Don't do it alone.
Grace was open to reaching out, building something for others she would love to have had, herself. She heard and acted on inner inspiration and manages it actively. She manages inward-outward openness ("porosity") with alternate inspiration and conversation. She collected a network of people and ideas, and before fusing a solution, took care to make sure she sensed correctly—that people had a real need and would use what she wanted to create.
Good sensing and listening skills are essential for innovation—listening to kill your idea, to understand, to filter and respond, to speedily sense patterns or make decisions; listening to everyone, to no-one, or to someone who's inspired; and never to the point of burnout.
Who do you listen to but maybe shouldn't?
Who are you not hearing but maybe should?
Will you join a community with experts and mentors to listen to?
Have you dreamed a dream and are listening to your heart?
1. one who innovates across domains of industry, field, country, social class, etc.
◦ s radical innovator, interdisciplinary creator, T-shaped person, borderless freethinker, boundary-crossing integrator, oddball;
Grace Sai is the CEO and Co-Founder of The Hub Singapore, the nation's largest co-working community of entrepreneurs, "techies," and "creatives." Well-regarded as the node of Asia's entrepreneurship ecosystem, she is a Prime-Minister-level advisor on ecosystem building and policy development for startups and social enterprises. She is "from" Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, UK, and the USA (Silicon Valley) (lived 6 months+, countries listed in alphabetical order). For more information on her work, see : LinkedIn and Impact Hub Singapore.
I thank the participants in this study (Fusioneers and Friends) for your insights, sharing, help, and patience. You inspire me, and I am honoured to know you. Special thanks go to Gladys Lee for her marketing excellence and video- and podcast-production brilliance, as well as the host of creative professionals involved in producing the videos and podcasts (you're all listed on YouTube, iTunes, etc.). I extend a warm thanks to Fusion Research Assistant Dr. Lee Poh Chin for her continually-wise and dedicated contribution to this research, as well as i2i Executive Shareff Uthuman for managing the rats-nest of global research travel and budgets. I thank Nitish Jain and the S P Jain School of Global Management for supporting this research—you're the foundation that enables the whole project. You are all God-sends. It takes a village to write a paper.
Photo/video cuts courtesy of Grace Sai, Depositphotos, and our own creative team.
For more Fusion articles, click here.
2018 May update:
I am pleased to share with you that from today, Impact Hub Singapore will be rebranded as Found.— a homegrown Singapore and Southeast Asia brand that is globally connected. This is a huge milestone for us and we are excited for you to be a part of this.
Over the course of 6 years, we have built a community of 2,500 members and alumni who have collectively created more than 4,500 jobs, have a combined revenue of $1bn and raised more than $380million. As a team and community, we have also helped more than 75 corporates in their innovation agendas. We also became Google for Entrepreneurs' first Southeast Asian partner.
The decision to leave the Impact Hub network yet still maintaining ties with all Impact Hubs, is fuelled by a desire to scale our impact and operations regionally and globally.
We believe that the high-growth SEA region with a population of 650 million and a fast-developing innovation economy needs curated ecosystems that bring together the entrepreneurs, thought leaders, disruptors, rebels, corporate and government leaders.
Found. is a network of innovation studios where ambitious
entrepreneurs and corporates find coaching, expertise, and
partners to create future-ready solutions.
The name ‘Found.’ signals both a journey and a goal. More importantly, it is a place of belonging, whichever part of the journey you are on.
With Found., I am also excited to announce a third home in Singapore for our community to collaborate from— it will be our flagship site, located on Amoy Street. We will see an increased Corporate Innovation focus at Amoy and it will be a huge pool of partnership opportunities that our community will gain from. This location also calls many high-growth startups our neighbours, and we are excited for more meaningful conversations and collaborations to happen.
We want to answer any questions you might have. Some we will be able to answer with this FAQ page. For any enquiries about this announcement, you can also drop firstname.lastname@example.org an email and we will respond as soon as we can.
This marks an exciting new chapter for our journey together, and a true ownership of our brand and community.
On behalf of the Found. team